Mutual funds selling, holding onto cash

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NEW YORK — Sell high.

That’s what managers of some mutual funds say they’re doing after watching stock prices soar. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index has surged nearly 50 percent in the last two years and nearly 150 percent since the market’s bottom in March 2009.

That’s led managers, particularly those who look for stocks that are cheap relative to their earnings, to sell some of their stocks and wait for prices to fall before buying again. If they’re right, they’ll have protected their investors and have more cash with which to buy stocks on sale. If they’re wrong and stocks keep rising, their investors will miss out on the gains.

“We’ve made some money, and we’re taking some chips off the table,” says Sandy Villere. For the last five years, his Villere Balanced fund (VILLX) has returned an average of 14 percent annually and ranks in the top 1 percent of its category, according to Morningstar.

“What do they say? Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered,” Villere says.

The fund has been selling stocks since May and leaving the proceeds parked in cash. That means cash now makes up 12 percent of its $849.5 million in assets. Historically, cash has been below 5 percent of the total.

Other managers have joined Villere, albeit not to the same degree. Fund managers have an average of 4.5 percent of their portfolios in cash, up from 3.8 percent in January, according to the most recent survey data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In July cash was at 4.6 percent, a one-year high.

Holding cash isn’t necessarily a red flag, says Todd Rosenbluth, director of mutual fund and ETF research for S&P Capital IQ. Mutual funds always have some on hand, ready to return to investors who may be selling their shares.

Rosenbluth says he considers a fund fully invested as long as it has up to 5 percent of its assets in cash. Once it gets over 10 percent, he says investors should ask why and check to see if it has had a good history doing so.

Some investors say the S&P 500 is due for a drop of at least 10 percent, which is called a correction in trader-ese. The index hasn’t experienced one since 2011, though it had a 6 percent drop between May 21 and June 24.

Economists also expect the Federal Reserve to soon announce a paring back of its bond-buying stimulus program for the economy. The Fed’s efforts have helped to keep long-term interest rates low.

Here are some factors investors should keep in mind when considering stock mutual funds building up their cash levels:

• It can mean a higher tax bill. Fund investors could receive a capital gains distribution and owe taxes on it, even if they didn’t sell any shares of the mutual fund themselves.

• You’re paying someone to hold cash. When a mutual fund holds cash, it is still charging its expenses to cover its managers’ salaries and other operating costs. The average U.S. stock mutual fund has an expense ratio of 1.26 percent.

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